Proof of Work Origins
Sept 23 2021

An interface is not just a portal for access, but a designed extension of the body that then designs the body in reverse” Rachel Ossip, N+1, 2018

Much of my work is concerned with the relationship between physical and digital worlds; how software reaches into and manipulates the world, and how expression or gesture is modulated as it enters the digital. 

In (GUA), a group of participants are led to gesture and move via web-based interfaces on their mobile phones. The project attempts to make evident power dynamics between system creators and system users, by providing users with interactions so limited in scope that they require specific gestures to complete.

Proof of Work came from the idea of turning these systems of software guidance on myself. The first exploration was an application which required the entry of 10,000 values to construct a 100x100 pixel image. Scaled down from the broad gestures of GUA, the software driving Proof of Work induced the small-scale gesture of a keypress while drawing out the duration of the task.

I first used this application to test a question around randomness. Randomness is famously hard to generate, even for a computer; Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has a great piece about this called Method Random that visualizes the patterns that occur in as randonly generated sequences. 

I wanted to see what human-generated randomness would look like, compared to that of a computer. Producing the 10,000 random values took around 30 minutes to complete a 100x100 image. I shared the manually generated image with a random generated reference and asked my followers to guess which was which. 

Most responders thought that the computer produced image was my production, though those with deeper computer experience guessed correctly that the first image was manual, the second computer generated.  

I was curious to see what how different people might generated different images, and asked some friends to produce their own ‘portraits’ through the software.

Watching them type away was quite funny, a child’s idea of computer work; one friend described producing the image as a ‘weirdly joyful feeling’. The images below show three different random generations, the slide documenting the process of production, with running commentary about the absurdity of it all.  

It was only after these explorations that I entered the world of NFTs. I felt a deep drive to participate, but the raw speculative nature of the market felt off-putting. Not wanting to sell my friend’s productions, I used the same software to generate a series of five 100x100 random images over one week. 

The images show an interesting progression; pattern uniformity starting out strong but dipping Tuesday and Wednesday, coming back strong for Thursday and Friday. I listed and sold these as abstractions of the idea of an artwork. I added a few more versions, experimenting with diffferent colours. Ultimately I only sold the last Friday image and de-listed the first four, feeling that the lack of aethetic concern was an issue. 

After this exploration, Beeple’s ‘The First 5000 Days’ sold for a record-breaking $69,346,250. Buyer Metakovan explained his rationale for the purchase as such:  
“When you think of high-valued NFTs, this one is going to be pretty hard to beat. And here’s why — it represents 13 years of everyday work. Techniques are replicable and skill is surpassable, but the only thing you can’t hack digitally is time. “ — MetaKovan, Christies Press Release

This assumption that one metric can be used to determine the value of an artwork was a perfect encapsulation of the speculative nature of the market, and so I set out to challenge the assumption by embodying it directly. 

Adopting Beeple’s production pace, I generated one image per day. To provide varying levels of effort for the market to speculate on, I began each series with a pixel canvas of 1x1, and doubled it each day. A series would end when I could no longer complete one image in a day, my physiologically limitations ensuring the scarcity of the series.

While producing these images I was reminded of keystroke dynamics, a field of behavioural biometrics which explores typing dynamics. Researchers have found that the rhythm and pattern of keystrokes are unique to each user, with the potential for replacing passwords as an authentication method. 

“[...] typing is a motor programmed skill and that movements are organized prior to their actual execution. Therefore, a person’s typing pattern is a behavioral characteristic that develops over a period of time and therefore cannot be shared, lost or forgotten.” Bannerjee and Woodward, Journal of Pattern Recognition

If we interpret the patterns that appear in the image as a visual representation of this gestural biometric, the images transform from pure records of effort to a sort of minimum viable artwork, the hand of the artist visible in the digital image.

Blogpost Sept 9 2021 

Took most of August off, biked from Montreal to New York City to visit friends. The trip was a real exercise in listening to small nudges, following through on little insights. Ended up in Provincetown for a week and a half, meeting people and hanging out on the beach. 

Back in Montreal, happy to be home and back at work. Applied to Mars College this morning, excited to see what people I might meet there. Have always been interested in desert living. If they’ll have me, I’d like to get a motorcycle and drive down before the winter fully takes.

There has been new interest in Proof of Work. Blue Duration is basically sold out - three of the last four I minted to my wallet are sold, and I’m holding on to the 1x1 as a sort of artist’s proof. I feel that those are the most emblematic of the project, a single gesture. 

I’ve been developing Red Pressure, and am reminded of what artistic work is; a slow refinement of an idea, a pushing away of the fear that the idea is not valid or interesting, a heeding of the desire for refinement. 

Red Pressure maps the pressure of a touchscreen tap to intensity of colour. Originally I wanted to use the trackpad on my macbook, for visual continuity in the documentation. I wrote up an application that received trackpad pressure information, but in testing the trackpad revelealed itself to not deliver very consistent values. 

I experimented with force sensing resistors, but these also had their issues, and aesthetically they departed from the visual narrative of human / computer interfaces. 

I was looking around to see if I could calibrate the trackpad and came across, a website which uses a force-touch capable iphone to give quite accurate weight estimations for capactive objects. 

I found an OSC controller app with 3D touch capabilties (Syntien). Fully editable, and sends granular touch pressure data. There is a slight delay in receiving the values using this approach, but the pressure is much more reliable. 

Colour always takes longer than I think. In Blue Duration I was just using a single color value, and multiplying it by the elapsed time between keypresses, which resulted in a light/dark modulation of the blue. 

Modulating red in this way results in muddy shades which I didn’t like, and so instead I’m modulating between two shades of red, a brighter/pinkish hue and a deeper red.

The variation between taps is less than it was in Blue Duration, and I like how the differences in the pixels are almost imperceptible. There seems to be less of a banding effect in the eary tests I’ve done, and a more scattered visual effect. 

I’m aiming to start production of Red Pressure on Monday Sept 13, and have them up for sale by Sept 24, depending on how long the series runs for.

Blogpost July 9 2021

Came across this clip today, in Michael Connolly’s blog. In it, Vera Molnar speaks about why she uses randomness in her art, saying that the old idea was that the artist would create from a place of intuition, but that including randomness into a process would allow a machine to create variations beyond what intuition could produce.

I like this way of seeing the computer; it also makes sense when thinking of art made with machine learning and AI. The discourse in the news is often that the AI created the work, but the truth is often that an artist or programmer finessed and sorted the output, selecting and compiling the best outputs.

The generative approach makes a lot of sense when dealing with visuals, because the eye can quickly scan a grid of generated visuals and pick out the most visually striking ones. A generative process  makes less sense for audio or video work; time-based work doesn’t scan the same way visuals do, requireing a much deeper time committment to interpret.  

I think my lack of interest in generative processes is partly because I’m not interested in creating visual experiences. My interest is more in the realm of creating systems which generate experience. 

For example, the development of Shadowing was focused on creating a system which would evoke a sense of exploration and play. The visual of the shadow on the sidewalk was only important as a method of communicating the action of the system, not as a visual in itself. 

The visual output of Proof of Work holds a similar place in the project, a result of my engagement with an interactive system. The image is produced not by asking the computer for randomness within a system, but by setting a task for the artist, the difficulty and repetitiveness of which generates visual variation. 

Perhaps in a world where computers were external workstations, the idea of outsourcing the intuitive possibilities of art felt more exciting than at this current moment, where the computer feels internalized and all-encompassing.

Proof of Work embodies my approach to the generative image, where instead of celebrating the potential for the computer to add to breadth of the artist’s practice, I see the computing experience as an encompassing set of systems which seek to modify behaviour and impede the flow of production and intuition.

Blogpost July 6 2021

Played around today with a random generator for Colour Time. I’m thinking of releasing an series of on-chain Colour Time animations, but I’m undecided as of yet whether I will make them manually or generative.

The advantage of generative is that the scale can be larger, and it speaks to the nature of the collectible NFT market.

But the problem of generative is that there is very little possibility for artistic expression, and you’re often just wrangling the generative system, bounding it in enough so that it creates image that are pleasing.

I don’t really find that type of work very interesting, and this is partly what I’m expressing in the Proof of Work series; that there is some specific value to art that is the direct result of the hand of the artist.

We can see the generative process as a sort of artistic tool, akin to AI, but I feel often the tool itself becomes revered rather than seen as just a tool.

A generative release does invite the audience into the artistic process; they work directly with the tool, often generating a random output. The artist and audience discover the series of works together, and the market makes judgements around which images are the most valuable.

Perhaps we can see the generative process as a way of adding variability to the concrete nature of digital creation; a way of adding a bit of randomness into an a quite specific vision.

If we look at Fidenza, this perspective makes sense. All the outputs belong clearly to the same family, and we can understand the bounds of the system by looking at the outputs as whole.

For Colour Time, because the visual structure is so minimal, I think these explorations are showing me that I should be making each one manually.

Blogpost June 30 2021

A week off from computer work. The story I was telling was that I was taking a month off from computer work. I succeeded in one week, but a call brough me back online today.

I feel a sense of compulsion when I go online; my hands open a series of websites without my conscious input. It seems a challenge to stay focused, to keep on task. And the task is unclear; how much does posting one tweet change things? How online do I need to be?

On my phone, I blocked news and social sites, but still the desire to scroll broke through, and I spent mornings scrolling through Metafilter. I’ve read that the act of scrolling in itself a form of auto-hypnosis; often I am reading a book when the phone pulls me over into scrolling. Something about searching, about the possibility of discovery, is hard to resist.

I didn’t replace my computer work time with much other work; instead I moved slowly through the day, spending afternoons walking, at the pool, or reading. I missed the sense of accomplishment that work brings, and often felt a bit sad at the end of the day.

It felt like I should rather go away on a trip if I was not going to work; that hanging around Montreal was not as transportative or rejuvenating as a journey further afield might be. Is the desire to use time effectively a product of our culture or an innate human desire, to maximise the time we have?

I went cruising more often; perhaps cruising replaces the sense of exploration and accomplishment that I otherwise achieve through work. I met the same guy two nights in a row; a pleasant occurance.

Coming back to the computer after one week, I was disappointed to see my old habits emerge, almost stronger than they were before. Time away from the computer did not help make these habits disappear, and perhaps made them worse. Perhaps spending time with the computer strenthens the resolve; the temptation for distraction is always there, we learn to focus with the constant possibility of distraction.

What I’ve never figured out is how bad my computer addiction is relative to others; am I more compulsive than the norm, or are the problems and issues I face the same that others face? Or is it a lack of defined tasks that makes it difficult for me to focus?